A subtle feint, back to goal, and Wilfried Zaha had his marker where he wanted him, too tight, too committed. Once he had spun elegantly away from the unfortunate Atakan Cankaya, of Ankaragucu, Zaha was in one of his favourite places, just inside the opposition penalty area, ball teed up for his right foot, angles favourable.
He rifled in his shot, a strike seen many times before from Zaha in a Crystal Palace jersey, a goal whipped across the goalkeeper, left to right. Zaha celebrated with a mighty leap and a clenched fist. His new club, Galatasaray, had been trailing 1-0. Zaha changed the script, kick-starting Saturday’s comeback to 2-1 up and maintaining the Turkish champions’ unbeaten start to the season.
It was Zaha’s first goal for Galatasaray, who he joined from Palace in the summer with the express wish of playing in the Uefa Champions League, a platform outside the reach of Palace, where Zaha had become an enduring, adored icon: over 450 senior games, 90 goals. On Tuesday, a few weeks before turning 31, Zaha can finally anticipate a long-awaited first start in club football’s most prestigious competition. The setting makes it especially poignant.
A decade ago, at Old Trafford where Galatasaray meet a troubled Manchester United, Zaha was watching Champions League matches from the grandstands, a United employee but one excluded from their European squad. That absence rankled with the winger, who had been signed that year, 2013. With his dazzling footwork and his turn of speed, he was heralded as an exciting addition to a United squad in momentous transition.
A new manager, David Moyes, had assumed the reins held for 27 years by Alex Ferguson. There was hype around Zaha, a natural fit, it was suggested, in the great line of United wingers that runs through George Best and a young Cristiano Ronaldo. Ten years ago, Zaha was being feted as the latest ‘New Ryan Giggs’ in the Daily Telegraph.
By the end of his first season at United, Giggs, then 40, had become United’s emergency player-manager. Moyes had been sacked, having picked Zaha in his starting XI just twice, before exiling Zaha in the January to a loan at Cardiff City. He would return to Palace after just 12 months away, there to establish himself as the heartbeat of the south London club.
Over his Palace odyssey, the match-winning displays, season after season, confronted United again and again with the idea they had wasted an opportunity by marginalising Zaha. The player also faced an ongoing dilemma: to stick with Palace, raising a middleweight club’s standards steadily, or to move somewhere with greater potential to win trophies and compete in Europe?
Zaha faced a similar quandary as an international footballer. He was selected for two friendlies for England before he turned 21, but none after he had left United. He switched his international allegiance to Ivory Coast, where he was born, six years ago. If he goes to January’s Africa Cup of Nations finals, hosted in his native country, it will be his fourth Afcon.
In June, Galatasaray offered him both elite Uefa football and a squad full of European knowhow. Injury restricted his first two months of action, but the promising, goalscoring first Galatasaray start at the weekend has been noted by United.
Erik ten Hag, the United manager, namechecked Zaha ahead of the Group A meeting, listing Galatasaray’s attacking threats. “We know their quality,” he said. “It’s not only Zaha and Mauro Icardi, but there’s Dries Mertens and Hakim Ziyech. We have to defend that and be at our best to get the right result.”
Mertens, owner of over 100 caps for Belgium, and Icardi, a Champions League finalist with Paris Saint-Germain, helped steer Gala to last season’s Turkish title. Zaha and Ziyech – a Champions League winner while with Chelsea – are fresh arrivals brought in to add width.
Ziyech is a doubt, the Moroccan having missed the win against Ankaragucu to continue his recuperation from a muscle problem, leaving Zaha to take command of creative duties at the weekend and to arrive at Old Trafford on a high.
He has watched highlights of his beloved Palace beating United on Saturday; he is mindful, as a winger, that United are short of fit full-backs. He is entitled to see them as vulnerable – and eerily like they were 10 years ago, when Zaha was a bewildered, frustrated, underused new addition to the squad.
Back then, Moyes’ United went into October having lost three times already in the Premier League; Ten Hag has overseen defeats in four of seven league games. Lose on Tuesday and United would be bottom of Group A while Galatasaray proudly occupy one of the pole qualifying positions.